NEW DELHI — Will the Tibet problem ever be solved? The last several months have seen sheer despondency among the people of the plateau. With little sign of China granting them even a small degree of autonomy, let alone freeing them from its decades-old subjugation, Tibetans are now beginning to have serious doubts about a political settlement.

The Dalai Lama has been talking about a new generation of lamas who can take up his cause.

In recent weeks, this apprehension has been magnified with the Dalai Lama’s disturbing public utterances. The spiritual leader, who has been running a government-in-exile from India’s Dharamsala for 40 years, appears to have lost faith in himself. He said recently his best efforts had failed, despite telling Beijing that his countrymen would be happy with limited powers that would allow them to preserve their culture. China could manage Lhasa’s economy and foreign policy.

Tibetans, both in India and in their own homeland, are understandably upset, for they had, till now, thought that the Dalai Lama would somehow manage a rapprochement. But with the man now turning 65 and exhibiting disappointing signs, his followers fear that the cause of Tibet could die with him.

But the presence in Dharamsala of the 15-year-old Karmapa Lama, Ugyen Trinley Dorje — who escaped from Tibet at yearend last year — has sparked a flicker of hope. Although, he cannot be a successor to the Dalai Lama because the two belong to different sects, there are indications that the lad will play an important role.

The Dalai Lama himself conceded this when he told an interviewer: “My generation is growing old, and the time has come to prepare the next generation. The Karmapa is one important member, especially for the Kagyu group. There are other bright young lamas as well.”

The question now uppermost in every exiled Tibetan — whether he is a dishwasher in a New York restaurant or a teenage student just adopted in the south of France — is whether this boy-Karmapa will be able to free Tibet, at least in some way, a task that the Dalai Lama has not been able to fulfill.

The chances seem bright enough, considering the kind of treatment the Karmapa has been getting in Dharamsala. The government-in-exile has put him up in a palatial house, and there is a lively monastery nearby that belongs to his sect, whose headquarters is in the Indian state of Sikkim.

Even in China, he has not been officially denounced, at least not until now. In fact, till he bolted, he enjoyed a certain authority.

Yet, for the Tibetans thirsting to go back to a free homeland,there appears to be no early end to the age-old impasse. For, if Chinese settlers have flooded the plateau — Tibetans are probably in a minority there, and according to one report comprise a mere 44 percent of the population — Beijing’s efforts to modernize the region have been remarkable, with the result that the original natives are beginning to wonder how wise it would be to go back to a time when religion was an all-pervasive factor, when anything beyond it was frowned upon.

In India, most children of older Tibetan refugees no longer fancy the idea of returning to a state that might offer few economic opportunities. They would rather migrate to the West, and many are working toward it (some have already left), signifying a conflict between the two generations.

China must be secretly chuckling at this development, for, going by what experts have to say on this, it has no intention of changing the power equation in Tibet. With its mineral wealth and tourist potential, it also acts as an excellent buffer against India (for Indians, a ridiculous concern, indeed).

And if anybody even remotely harbors the dream of international pressure to drive China away, he better banish it altogether from his mind. There may be a growing movement for a free Tibet in the West.

But the plea remains at the street level. Governments are unwilling to take up the cause. The reason is obvious. Tibet has no strategic or economic value to the Western world, and China, with its huge market, is not to be pushed around.

Beijing knows that in the days to come what will matter is money. Little wonder, then, that it has embarked upon a scheme to uplift Tibet economically, dangling the proverbial carrot of a good life before every disgruntled soul there.

Given a choice between the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Path” (with its austerity) and a state of economic well-being, most young Tibetans will undoubtedly opt for the latter.

A good part of the spiritual leader’s current disillusionment may stem from this new thinking among his people. But, it may still not be too late for him to reach a compromise with the rulers in Beijing. However, it will be prudent for him to leave options open: One could be to help pave the way for the likes of Karmapa to take over Tibetan leadership.

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